• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

In Defense of English Majors (and Every Other Kind)

It's about the student, not the major.

December 2, 2019
 
 

When The Boy was born, I didn’t look at him and wish to myself that he’d major in something marketable. I looked at him and wished him health and happiness and eventual emergence as a good man. I feared I wouldn’t be worthy of him. I didn’t give a hoot about the labor market.

As it happens, he’s doing something that looks like it could allow him to make a good living. That’s great, but it’s not why he’s here.

Chuck Rybak nailed it on Twitter over the weekend when he tweeted that “There are many people who talk about higher education that you should ignore. High among them are anyone who identifies what students choose to major in as a pressing ‘problem.’” That’s exactly right.

Yes, the ability to make a living matters. That’s obvious and undisputed. But as challenging as that can be in practical terms, morally, it’s a low bar. When I look at my family and friends, I don’t think about labor statistics. I see them in their quirky specificity. Higher education, at its core, is about allowing people to develop their quirky specificity more fully. It does that partly through creating a space in which people become accident-prone; with all those ideas flying around, it’s hard not to get hit by at least one of them. This is where people discover interests and aptitudes they didn’t know they had. In the course of following those, they grow.

Besides, at a really fundamental level, the labor market is a political and economic issue, rather than an educational one. Colleges don’t cause recessions. And labor markets are much less predictable than the usual debates imply. There was a time when law school was a sure bet for a good living -- remember that? Most of us who are more than a few years out of college know plenty of people whose current jobs bear little or no relationship to what they studied. Liberal arts majors in particular tend to follow a distinct occupational pattern: they struggle in the first few years, but then they start to climb. Over time, their earnings actually surpass most of the more “employable” majors, which start higher but plateau early. Focusing myopically on the first couple of years after graduation misses the big picture.

But even that implicitly concedes too much. Work is obviously important, but people are more than workers The old opposition between the “liberal arts” and the “servile arts” (no, there’s no such thing as the “conservative arts”) was based on the idea that the latter is about making a living and the former is about going beyond that. Historically, that tended to relegate the arts of liberty, ironically enough, to the elite. Only the elite had time and leisure to worry about more than making a living. The radical part of public higher education -- the part that market fundamentalists look upon with suspicion -- is in the belief that ideas are for everybody. Implied in that belief is a conviction that there’s enough wealth in the larger society to make that possible. All we have to do is decide to do it.

Grand ideas may well be situated in various employable practices, but that’s sort of the point. Workers are people, but people are more than workers. They bring other things with them to work. Those other things have a way of showing up in the work itself. In looking at, say, car repair, we see political choices about public versus private transportation and the daily impact of zoning. We see the political battles over emissions control, climate change and the price and availability of oil. The guys who did Car Talk demonstrated over and over again, for decades, the connection between a ubiquitous technology and the myriad ways that people actually live. As far as I was concerned, they were practicing the liberal arts at the highest level, even as they also made a practical living. Even a casual glance at a few of the thousands of cooking shows that are popular now shows quickly that they’re only partly about food; they’re much more about how people congregate, celebrate and preserve (and remake) cultures. I’d guess that some of the folks helping to assemble all that footage into coherent narratives are former English majors.

The Girl shows a real gift for thoughtful analysis of narrative. She’s talking about being an English major herself. I’m encouraging her. She’s a bright kid; if she forced herself to study something she hated, she could probably power through it. But that would be a waste. Forcing her to slog through something she doesn’t care about because some employment report suggested it might work (or might not) would risk turning someone brilliant into someone dutiful. That would be a crime against her, and a crime against the future. I want her to see what she can do when she really cares. She’ll figure out the rest.

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